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PhD Student Brings Personal Experience to Urban Geography Research

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Nikolai Alvarado will collect his PhD this spring and continue his research in a tenure-track faculty position in Illinois

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Nikolai Alvarado

The world knows La Carpio, Costa Rica’s informal settlement of Nicaraguan migrants, as a place of violence and corruption. Nikolai Alvarado, a PhD student in the University of Denver’s Department of Geography and the Environment, sees it as a place of opportunity.

“The reality is that these are spaces of hope,” Alvarado says. “These are spaces where, in a different way, democracy actually takes place.”

Alvarado came to DU in 2011 to study under Matthew Taylor, a geography professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. After Alvarado earned his master’s degree in 2013, he turned his attention to his PhD, which he plans to complete this spring before heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to serve as tenure-track faculty.

For the last several years, his research has examined the experience of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica and their ability to carve out a unique form of citizenship through micropolitics.

Having experienced migration, this work resonates with Alvarado. Though he was born in the United States, Alvarado’s family moved to his mother’s country, Ecuador, when he was just a few months old. By the time he was 11, they had moved to Costa Rica, where he finished high school before coming to the U.S. for college.

“Even though I had citizenship, I was — and felt like — a migrant. Spanish is my first language and I had to start from zero learning English,” he explains.

This connection to the migrant story, along with the drive to show Costa Rica in a new light, guides Alvarado’s research related to La Carpio.

“I wanted to go and understand how Nicaraguans have been able to build this place to the point where they have been able to get services like water, like electricity, like a school,” he says. “These are people who do not have citizenship, but through their actions, they built a different type of citizenship because they end up being recognized.”

Alvarado explains that for years, Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica have slowly constructed their own access to necessary infrastructure and public life by doing what they had to do to survive. To provide La Carpio with water, he says, they tapped into public pipes. To access electricity, they ran cable from nearby communities. These actions have facilitated what Alvarado refers to as micro, or informal, politics.

“In a way, the mess they make — in the eyes of everyone else — actually prompts the authorities to come and face them and say this is illegal. But in that moment of interaction, negotiations take place where claims for human rights and these sorts of things start happening.”

Studying the success of informal politics in areas like La Carpio, Alvarado says, can change stereotypes about the political landscape in countries of the Global South, often regarded by people in the Global North as failed, developmentally behind or primitive. In fact, he says, these informal politics should serve as an example to other countries.

“What this is showing is that there is a lot of informality that takes place at the street level that is important for the practice of citizenship — for some kind of rights to be allocated,” Alvarado says. “Already, in places like the Netherlands, they are using this idea of informality as a vital component of allocating rights to citizens, especially marginalized populations and migrants.”

Alvarado’s research also looks at environmental justice, environmental racism and urbanization in Latin America.

When he isn’t buried in his studies, Alvarado teaches, both at the University of Denver and the Community College of Aurora. At DU, he has taken undergraduate students to Nicaragua and Costa Rica with Taylor’s field classes. Working with students, Alvarado says, has been a highlight of his time at DU. Not only has teaching allowed him to open young eyes to new ideas, but also to empower them through education.

Alvarado plans to continue pursuing his passions for research and teaching in his new role in Illinois and through an ongoing partnership with his DU mentor.

“There were many points [when] I felt very lost about what I was doing, and I didn’t know if I was correct or looking at the right things, but [Taylor] continued to push me to explore these ideas, and I think that absolutely that has been the main ingredient for me,” he says.

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